Movies
4:18 pm
Sat March 22, 2014

Fatal Accident Fuels Safety Concerns On Hollywood's Sets

Originally published on Sat March 22, 2014 7:47 pm

There's growing concern in Hollywood over film crews' safety, as crews feel mounting pressure to push their limits on set. The call for attention to the issue amplified after the death of 27-year-old Sarah Jones.

On Feb. 20, the camera assistant was killed in an accident on the set of the film Midnight Rider, a biopic about the musician Gregg Allman.

The crew had been shooting a scene on an active train trestle in Doctortown, Georgia. According to the Wayne County Sheriff's Office, police got a report of a train hitting people working on the film. Jones was killed, and seven others were injured. The Sheriff's Office is still investigating the case, as is the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The film's production has been put on hold indefinitely.

David S. Cohen, a senior editor at Variety, says the crew had been filming a dream sequence on the train trestle, and had placed a metal bed on the tracks. The crew, Cohen says, "had been told that there might be a train coming and if they did hear a train, they would hear a whistle, and they'd have a minute to clear the bridge."

When a train began approaching the film shoot, Cohen says, it surprised the crew, arriving much more quickly than expected. Crew members did not have time to move the bed from the tracks.

"The train struck the bed, which then became shrapnel," he says.

With the multiple investigations still ongoing, there are several unanswered questions, including whether or not the crew had obtained permission to shoot on the train tracks, and exactly what safety precautions had been taken.

But even as the results of the investigations are pending, the accident has forced a discussion of safety on set.

Jones was briefly mentioned during the "In Memoriam" segment at this year's Academy Awards, and hundreds attended a memorial walk and candlelight vigil in Los Angeles on March 7, where they paid tribute to Jones and called for a greater attention to safety. There have been other notable deaths on set in recent years, such as the death of stuntman Kun Lieu during filming of The Expendables 2 in 2011.

But Jones was not a stuntwoman. She was a camerawoman, and that has broadened the debate. Unlike stunt positions, second assistant camera and other crew positions do not inherently involve a high degree of danger. But Cohen says crew members feel that film productions are pushing the envelope, and sacrificing safety as a result.

"There is a feeling that in the push to get shots made, to get shows done in an era of a bad economy and limited resources," says Cohen, "that productions are pushing harder and harder, and that safety is less and less of a consideration."

Cohen says that crew members also feel enormous pressure to accept potentially dangerous conditions on set.

"No one wants to say no," he says, "because they feel like if you say no, they won't hire you next time."

Still, Cohen says, the incident has already prompted people to speak up more frequently about safety issues on set.

"What we're already hearing," he says, "is that more people are saying no, and more people are saying, wait, stop, think."

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Director Lars von Trier takes on sex and death in ways that deeply disturb moviegoers. But the business of moviemaking itself can be disturbing. The process can be chaotic and even dangerous. Sometimes, people die. The most recent case in America was Sarah Jones.

Jones was a 27-year-old camera assistant, and a month ago, she died while working on the set of the film "Midnight Rider." The film had been shooting at an active train trestle in Doctortown, Georgia, when an oncoming train killed Sarah Jones and injured several others.

David Cohen is a senior editor with Variety, and he's been reporting on the case. He says on the day of the accident, the film crew was shooting a dream sequence and had placed a metal frame bed on a train bridge.

DAVID COHEN: And they had been told that there might be a train coming, and if they did hear a train, they would hear a whistle, and they'd have a minute to clear the bridge. And as it happened, for whatever reason, they heard the whistle, and they didn't have a minute to get off the bridge.

The train struck the bed, which then became shrapnel. Some of that shrapnel hit members of the crew and broke their bones. One large piece of shrapnel struck Sarah Jones, who was the second camera assistant, and hit her hard enough to knock her into the path of the oncoming train. And she was killed more or less instantly.

RATH: You know, a point of controversy here is whether the production had permission to shoot on those train tracks. What do we know about that?

COHEN: We know very little about that, and that is one of the key questions upon which this case will turn when it comes to lawsuits and criminal charges. The railroad has insisted that they did not give permission for them to be on that trestle or those tracks and says they have an email chain to prove it.

The production says that the email chain continues past CSX Railroad's denial, and that there was something that seems to imply permission or something like that. Those emails have not been made public.

RATH: Can you talk about the reaction you've been hearing from people who work on sets since this accident?

COHEN: There have been fatalities on film sets before, and some relatively recently. But this has hit people in a very different way, and I think for a good reason. Usually when people are killed or badly injured on sets, it tends to be stunt men who are paid to do dangerous work and go into the work they do knowing the risks that they're taking.

But this is a second camera assistant. And as someone explained to me, everybody in the business started on a bottom-of-the-ladder job like second camera assistant. Everybody who works in production, whether it's a cinematographer or a sound mixer or assistant director, understands how powerless that person is.

There is a feeling that in the push to get shots made in an era of a bad economy and limited resources, that productions are pushing harder and harder and that safety is less and less of a consideration. And technicians, camera people, sound people feel across the board that they are being put in danger regularly and an accident like this isn't shocking for that reason. It's only shocking that it was such a horrible one.

RATH: So, David, do you think the death of Sarah Jones is going to have any kind of effect on how movies are made?

COHEN: Yes, I do think that the death of Sarah Jones will have an effect, if only because it will empower people to stand up for themselves a little bit more. The danger every one experiences, even very, very experienced crew people on a movie set, is that no one wants to say no because they feel like if you say no, they won't hire you next time. And what we're already hearing is that more people are saying no and more people are saying: Wait, stop, think.

RATH: David Cohen is a senior editor with Variety. David, thank you.

COHEN: Thank you for having me.

RATH: The local sheriff's office is still investigating the incident, as is the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Those investigations are expected to take at least several more weeks. The production of "Midnight Rider" is on hold indefinitely. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.